Unquiet Spirits by Bonnie Macbird. Book review

UNQUIET SPIRITS by Bonnie Macbird, Collins Crime Club, h/b £14.99

Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson

This book is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche so beloved of Sherlockians, as enthusiasts of Conan Doyle’s eccentric consulting detective choose to call themselves. As a purist, I find such imitations unsatisfactory, perhaps unfairly as this is an entertaining, readable story that reaches an exciting climax in a whisky distillery and a tun of barley mash in particular. As an added bonus the tale includes a back story on Holmes himself. His apparent misogyny appears to be an issue to the author Bonnie Macbird, so she invests some time in qualifying it.

The publisher’s blurb promises the reader whisky, ghosts and murder. There is plenty of the former and the latter, but precious little of the supernatural. All the principle characters disdain the idea of ghosts as a belief of the servant class, who lack the proper education. Don’t you just love the British class system!

Yet an ethereal spirit does intrude a couple of times leaving the reader wondering quite what relevance it has to the plot. There is a feeling that this has been added to create an atmosphere, even though the story is tense enough given the relatively high body count that is revealed. No doubt someone felt that you can’t have a castle in the Highlands without a ghost for fear of failing to fulfil the romantic drolleries of Sir Walter Scott that lurk like a sour odour in our collective psyche.

Holmes is asked by his brother Mycroft, who else, to investigate attempts by French politicians to smear the British in general and the Scottish whisky industry in particular, as the cause of the phylloxera epidemic that was devastating French vineyards in the late nineteenth century. Given that this was in the days of the Third Republic when nationalism and its inherent paranoia was dominating French affairs this part of the plot has a distinct ring of truth about it. Following a sequence of illuminating events in the south of France, Holmes’s energies are redirected into the Scottish Highlands by the unpleasant revelation of a frozen, decapitated human head.

The narrator of this tale is our old friend, Dr Watson who describes how Holmes progressively unravels a complex web of betrayal, opportunism, jealous rage, vile indifference and violence surrounding the Maclaren whisky dynasty and some of their servants.

The primary French characters occasionally adopt simple French phrases inside an English accent, whilst the leading Scottish protagonists also speak in modern English, as do their servants. Then for some reason, the excellent Aberdonian haberdasher, a Mr Macauliffe, a wholesome character who effectively if remotely saves the day, adopts that weird `och-aye-the-noo’ dialect that is neither Scots, Lallans or Gaelic, but which is often put into the mouths of the North British by authors who should know better. Those of us who have part of our back story from north of the Highland line are unimpressed by such pointless affectation.

All in all, this is a decent, grounded, well-produced tale which for £14.99 in hardback is good value. Avid Sherlockians will no doubt find it excellent indeed.